Monday, April 30, 2007

Iraq, Gitmo and terrorism

Two stories out today.

One, simply an updater on the ongoing human rights disaster known as Gitmo.

More than a fifth of the approximately 385 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been cleared for release but may have to wait months or years for their freedom because U.S. officials are finding it increasingly difficult to line up places to send them, according to Bush administration officials and defense lawyers.

Since February, the Pentagon has notified about 85 inmates or their attorneys that they are eligible to leave after being cleared by military review panels. But only a handful have gone home, including a Moroccan and an Afghan who were released Tuesday. Eighty-two remain at Guantanamo and face indefinite waits as U.S. officials struggle to figure out when and where to deport them, and under what conditions.

Jail innocents for five years, and then continue jailing them because nobody wants to take Gitmo detainees for various political reasons. And we won't grant them asylum to make up for the ongoing mistake that is robbing them of their lives. Wonderful.

The other bit of news was the annual State Department report on terrorism, which shows a 25 percent increase in attacks last year, with a 40 percent increase in deaths and 54 percent increase in injuries. That's right, more and deadlier attacks.

Some of the increase involves countries and events that have little or no bearing on us -- the various brutal conflicts in Africa, for instance. But the largest number of attacks and deaths by far occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So let's see. After four years and hundreds of billions of dollars, our war on terror is succeeding in increasing terror attacks. We respond by ignoring human rights and basic justice in our zeal to capture and imprison real and imagined terrorists.

Anyone think there's a relationship? At a minimum, it seems safe to say our current strategy isn't working if reducing terrorism was the goal.

Update: Here's the full report.

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Transgender kids

I'm not usually a big fan of Barbara Walters -- I find her long on schmalz and short on substance.

But I dare anyone to watch this segment she did on transgender kids and come away still thinking gender identity is a "choice", or that these kids deserve anything other than loving acceptance.

Meet the girl who is biologically a boy (picture, above), who started wanting her gender changed at age 2 and told her parents at age six that she wanted to kill herself because she hated her body.

Or the boy who is biologically a girl. His parents at first put him in therapy to try to cure him. But now he is taking hormone treatments -- involving multiple, regular injections -- and plans to have breast-removal surgery before going to college.

Then meet the support group for transgender kids -- a place they can go and just be themselves, and not worry about what society thinks. These are often pre-pubescent kids -- not the sort interested in making a socially painful choice out of some sort of desire to be naughty.

And read about all the adjustments and precautions the family has to take in order to deal with the issue, and tell me that anybody would put up with this unless they felt it was necessary.

In addition, most everyone thinks this is a biological development, though the precise cause has not been proven:

Through the first eight weeks of pregnancy, all fetuses' brains look exactly the same: female, nature's default position. Only after testosterone surges in the womb do male brains start to develop differently. Some scientists suggest that a hormone imbalance during this stage of development stamped the brains of transgender children with the wrong gender imprint.

Now this is gender identity, a different issue from sexual orientation. But activists on both sides of the gay/straight divide tend to lump them together, so they suffer much of the same discrimination as gays -- all of it equally, if not more, unjustified.

But if biology can cause this, might it not easily cause homosexuality, too? And so perhaps understanding and compassion for transgenders will lead us toward a day when we start seeing gay people not as "deviants" that threaten society -- a claim for which there is scant evidence -- but simply as people with a different biological history who have as much right as any of us to live, love, marry and have kids. Is that so much to ask?

I think not. But for now, can we at least agree that transgenders should be left out of that debate? Their case, it seems to me, is open and shut: It's not a choice, and it's not their fault. Instead of sanctioning them when they come out, we should accept them instead.

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Dumb, but not THAT dumb

New Jersey Gov. John Corzine, recovering from serious injuries incurred from crashing into a guard rail while speeding without a seat belt, left the hospital today. He faces months of rehabilitation to recover from his injuries, which included 15 broken bones.

While not wearing a seatbelt was dumb, Corzine showed he can be smart in other ways, saying he would pay for his medical care himself rather than use his state health insurance coverage.

He was also contrite.

"I understand I set a very poor example for a lot of young people, a lot of people in general,'' Corzine said. "I hope the state will forgive me."

He might have to do more than hope. The state attorney general has appointed a panel to investigate the circumstances of the crash, which ought to be embarrassing if nothing else; and the township where the crash occurred is weighing whether to issue him a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. The fine: $46.

I hope he continues to recover -- and that he has learned his lesson.

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Frist cleared in stock probe

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has been cleared of wrongdoing in an insider-trading investigation over the sale of stock in the hospital chain his family owns.

In a rare inversion of the usual rule, his meticulous e-mail log saved him.

The former Tennessee senator was able to show in copies of e-mails given to federal investigators that he began the process of selling his family's HCA stock in April 2005 - well before HCA had disappointing second-quarter earnings and publicly reported that fact July 13, two people familiar with Frist's records said Friday.

One could spin all sorts of conspiracy theories here, I suppose, because the case was being investigated by a U.S. attorney, a Bush appointee. But there's no evidence to support that, and I prefer my scandals to be backed by evidence.

So good for Frist. I'm glad he's out of politics -- for multiple reasons -- but I'm also glad he's clean.

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Is Iraq a reliable ally -- for Iran?

Depending on how this turns out, we may be getting closer to actual proof of Iranian complicity in arming Iraqi militias.

The American military said Friday that it had detained four Iraqi men suspected of helping smuggle deadly homemade bombs from Iran to Iraq and taking guerrillas from Iraq to Iran for training.

The men were detained in the morning during an operation in Sadr City, a vast Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad whose residents are mostly loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

For now there are a couple of problems. They weren't caught crossing into Iraq from Iran; they were caught in Baghdad, in the Sadr City slum. And the suspects are Iraqis, not Iranians. So it's hard to say why they think they're connected to arms smuggling.

It would also indicate that if Iran is arming anyone, it's the Shiite militias -- many of whom are loyal to politicians that support the current Shiite-led Iraqi government. Which creates a whole new set of questions about the reliability of that government.

That reliability was called into question anew yesterday, when U.S. military officials complained that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office was responsible for the sacking of 16 Army and police commanders, most of them Sunni. While some of the firings appeared to be for cause, several of the fired officers were considered to be among the more able commanders. Their apparent crime: Being too aggressive in combatting Shiite militias. Among the victims:

Maj. Gen. Abdulla Mohammed Khamis al-Dafi is a Sunni who commands the 9th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad, and is responsible for eastern Baghdad, home to such predominantly Shiite districts as Sadr City. On April 23, he told U.S. military officials he was determined to resign because of repeated "interference" from the prime minister's staff, according to portions of a report on the situation that was read to The Washington Post....

Another national police battalion commander, Col. Nadir Abd Al-Razaq Abud al-Jaburi, has been "known to pass accurate and actionable intelligence" about the Mahdi Army, the report said, adding that U.S. military officials describe him "as professional, non-sectarian, and focused on gaining support of the populace." Yet he was detained April 6 under an Interior Ministry warrant for allegedly supporting Sunni insurgents, the document said.

The report also outlines the case of Lt. Col. Ahmad Yousif Ibrahim Kjalil, a Sunni battalion commander in the 6th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad. He was allegedly fired by Jaidri but reinstated with another general's help. "He eventually resigned after at least five attempts on his life and one attempt on his children," the report said.

Col. Ali Fadil Amran Khatab al-Abedi, a Sunni who leads the 2nd Battalion, 5th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, was ordered arrested by the prime minister's office on April 17, the report said. Lt. Col. Emad Kahlif Abud al-Mashadani, a Sunni commander with the 1st Iraqi National Police Division, was detained April 15, the report said.

The Iraqi government denies any impropriety, but U.S. military officials see it differently.

"Their only crimes or offenses were they were successful" against the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which works with Iraqi security forces. "I'm tired of seeing good Iraqi officers having to look over their shoulders when they're trying to do the right thing."

This calls into question not only where that government's interests lie, but also its commitment to hit the political and military milestones sought by Bush, much less the stricter ones demanded by Congressional Democrats. And that, in turn, raises serious questions about the viability of our whole venture there.

To be fair, al-Maliki has a difficult task. But that just means the problem is that much more intractable:

Col. Ehrich Rose, chief of the Military Transition Team with the 4th Iraqi Army Division, who has spent several years working with foreign armies, said the Iraqi officer corps is riddled with divergent loyalties to different sects, tribes and political groups.

"The Iraqi army, as far as capability goes, I'd stack them up against just about any Latin American army I've dealt with," he said. "However, the politicization of their officer corps is the worst I've ever seen."

I, for one, see little point in trying to save a country that is so mired in corruption it can't be bothered to save itself. Has Iraq reached that point? Yes, long ago. The question now is whether it can and will change its stripes.

Which is where the benchmarks come in. But Bush, allergic to anything that even hints at accountability, doesn't want to enforce them. Which makes them simply meaningless suggestions. At best they constitute indirect pressure, based on the Iraqi government's knowledge that it cannot be certain of continued U.S. support after January 2009. Which just means wasting another year and a half before we start getting serious in Iraq.

All of this helps explain why King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has declined to meet with al-Maliki.

The Saudi leader's decision reflects the growing tensions between the oil-rich regional giants, the deepening skepticism among Sunni leaders in the Middle East about Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, and Arab concern about the prospects of U.S. success in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also indicates that the Maliki government faces a creeping regional isolation unless it takes long-delayed actions, Arab officials warn.

Abdullah's apparent reasoning: Why meet with someone you suspect is well on his way to becoming an Iranian pawn? Better to send a sharp signal of your dissatisfaction than attempt to keep putting lipstick on this pig. Coupled with Abdullah's recent description of our presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation", the message couldn't be louder or clearer.

One can look to the election of al-Maliki as a triumph of our commitment to an independent Iraq, since we did not interfere in the election or try to undermine him afterward, despite him not doing a great job of representing our interests.

Okay, yeah; good for us. We're fabulous, idealistic and high-minded.

But having said that, we still have to look at things in Iraq from the perspective of our own national interest. And if the Iraqi government continues to tilt toward Iran and refuses to take any serious steps either to share power with Sunnis or rein in the militias and rampant corruption, why are we there? "Keeping a lid on a civil war" is part of the answer, of course, but by itself it's not a good enough one.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Ford goes down

Former Tennessee state Sen. John Ford, a Democrat and uncle of recent Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., was convicted today of accepting bribes. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Hall of Shame has been updated.



... and it's botched execution

In the post before this one, I discuss George Tenet's book outlining the administration's rush to invade Iraq.

As a companion piece, an Army light colonel, Paul Yingling, has an article in Armed Forces Journal that essentially accuses our generals as a group of committing incompetence in Iraq.

As far as describing history and current conditions, there's not a whole lot in the article that hasn't been said elsewhere. What makes it powerful is the person saying it and the venue he's saying it in (Go here for a military interview with him on his experiences in Iraq. The link takes you to an abstract; click "access item" to read the pdf of the interview).

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America's generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

On Iraq specifically, he argues that the generals failed to "transform" the military in the 1990s, as they said they would, continuing to pursue a Cold War model of interstate warfare even as they were increasingly embroiled in counterinsurgency and stability operations.

Then, having built the wrong military, they used it badly. Here Yingling echos (and actually cites) Gen. Eric Shinseki, in noting that we committed far fewer troops to the occupation than we knew were needed based on prior experience. He castigates the generals for expressing reservations about those troop levels privately but not publicly.

They then made it worse.

inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise "Desert Crossing" demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America's generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.

After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America's general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. The Iraq Study Group concluded that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq."

There's more, including outlining a process to find and promote the generals we need, not the generals we have. Read the article, and then go to the second link above to add some context. For instance, Yingling's article is merely a public example of a sharp split between younger and older officers in the military:

Many majors and lieutenant colonels have privately expressed anger and frustration with the performance of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and other top commanders in the war, calling them slow to grasp the realities of the war and overly optimistic in their assessments.

Some younger officers have stated privately that more generals should have been taken to task for their handling of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, news of which broke in 2004. The young officers also note that the Army's elaborate "lessons learned" process does not criticize generals and that no generals in Iraq have been replaced for poor battlefield performance, a contrast to other U.S. wars.

Top Army officials are also worried by the number of captains and majors choosing to leave the service. "We do have attrition in those grade slots above our average," acting Army Secretary Pete Geren noted in congressional testimony this week. In order to curtail the number of captains leaving, he said, the Army is planning a $20,000 bonus for those who agree to stay in, plus choices of where to be posted and other incentives.

This is why the military cannot afford to protect generals that don't deserve it: because doing so will prompt many of their most competent officers to leave, the military equivalent of eating your seed corn.

An interesting question is whether Iraq should be blamed or thanked for exposing this schism. On the one hand, if Yingling's viewpoint is the accurate one, the war has been disastrously mismanaged. On the other hand, if the problem is structural we can be glad that we found out about it through a relatively minor entanglement like Iraq and not something more serious, giving us a chance to fix the problem before we face a truly existential test.

Me, I tend to take a sanguine view of such things. We had the same problem in World War II: an officer corps that had evolved for success in peacetime, which usually demands different skills (like, say, a talent for bureaucratic infighting) than those needed for success in wartime. In World War II, the problem was handled through a combination of cashiering incompetents and the simple math of ballooning the military from a few hundred thousand souls to multiple millions, thus diluting the influence of the desktop warriors.

While I think the modern military is more professional and combat-oriented than the pre-World War II version, it still suffers from many of the same problems. On top of that, with Iraq there was no massive expansion, so we fought the war with the existing officer corps; and it was overseen by the Bush administration, so there was no serious accountability. Plus there was no sense of urgency, as I've noted in previous screeds here and here.

Yingling's article is part of the standard learning curve for the military. We prepare for the last war, get surprised by the next one, muddle through in denial for a while, and then partway through start hammering the new reality home. It may be too late to apply the lessons to Iraq itself, but they should be heeded in order to prepare us for the war after that.

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The rush to war...

Former CIA director George Tenet vents some spleen about the handling of intelligence in the runup to the Iraq invasion.

George J. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, has lashed out against Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials in a new book, saying they pushed the country to war in Iraq without ever conducting a “serious debate” about whether Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States.

The 549-page book, “At the Center of the Storm,” is to be published by HarperCollins on Monday. By turns accusatory, defensive, and modestly self-critical, it is the first detailed account by a member of the president’s inner circle of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the decision to invade Iraq and the failure to find the unconventional weapons that were a major justification for the war.

“There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” Mr. Tenet writes in a devastating judgment that is likely to be debated for many years. Nor, he adds, “was there ever a significant discussion” about the possibility of containing Iraq without an invasion.

Mr. Tenet admits that he made his famous “slam dunk” remark about the evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But he argues that the quote was taken out of context and that it had little impact on President Bush’s decision to go to war. He also makes clear his bitter view that the administration made him a scapegoat for the Iraq war.

I have no idea if there's anything truly revelatory in the book or not. And, of course, one can always accuse Tenet of being self-serving.

But it does show an insider saying the administration was pretty much determined to invade Iraq, no matter what.

About his "slam dunk" comment:
He gives a detailed account of the episode, which occurred during an Oval Office meeting in December 2002 when the administration was preparing to make public its case for war against Iraq.

During the meeting, the deputy C.I.A. director, John McLaughlin, unveiled a draft of a proposed public presentation that left the group unimpressed. Mr. Tenet recalls that Mr. Bush suggested that they could “add punch” by bringing in lawyers trained to argue cases before a jury.

“I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a ‘slam dunk,’ a phrase that was later taken completely out of context,” Mr. Tenet writes. “If I had simply said, ‘I’m sure we can do better,’ I wouldn’t be writing this chapter — or maybe even this book.”

And regarding Bush's interest in terrorism:

The book recounts C.I.A. efforts to fight Al Qaeda in the years before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mr. Tenet’s early warnings about Osama bin Laden. He contends that the urgent appeals of the C.I.A. on terrorism received a lukewarm reception at the Bush White House through most of 2001.

That said, he describes Bush himself in a generally positive light. And he also thinks Al-Qaeda has cells in the United States planning further attacks.

(See related post)

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MIT dean resigns over fake credentials

Her name is Marilee Jones, and she's dean of admissions. She's been there for 28 years.

“I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to M.I.T. 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since,” Ms. Jones said in a statement posted on the institute’s Web site. “I am deeply sorry for this and for disappointing so many in the M.I.T. community and beyond who supported me, believed in me, and who have given me extraordinary opportunities.”

Ms. Jones, 55, originally from Albany, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places, or anywhere else, M.I.T. officials said.

A spokesman for Rensselaer said Ms. Jones had not graduated there, though she did attend as a part-time nonmatriculated student during the 1974-75 school year. The other colleges said they had no record of her.

Okay, faking credentials is wrong. But is a mistake made as a young woman 28 years ago -- and not corrected since -- worth a resignation? A major concern in such cases is that the person is unqualified for the job, but that is clearly not the case here: Jones had been doing the job for years, and earned rave reviews for her work. She has even become a celebrity for her book and speeches on the admissions process.

It's also unclear if she was ever required to update those fake credentials, considering she has spent her entire career in the admissions office, rising steadily through the ranks. In such cases, hiring decisions are rarely based on a resume; it's based on personal knowledge of the applicant.

MIT says the issue is integrity, and I understand that. But it's a tragedy that a well-liked, highly competent employee should lose everything because of a youthful transgression that, once made, became too costly to own up to. It's a weird situation, where Jones' actions were plainly wrong, but nevertheless everyone would be better off if this had never come to light.

Maybe MIT is right, and they had to fire her. But while it might be fair, it doesn't feel like justice. Maybe there was room to find forgiveness for her based on her entire career, instead of reducing that career to the lie that began it.

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Oh, well, that makes it okay, then

Mitt Romney, dogged by reports of his well-documented flip-flops on key issues in a transparent effort to appeal to the GOP's conservative base, mounts a stout defense of the practice. His argument? McCain and Guliani did it, too.

"Senator McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts. Now he's for them. He was opposed to ethanol. Now he's for it. He said he was opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Now he's for overturning Roe v. Wade," Romney said, adding: "that suggests that he has learned from experience."

"Mayor Giuliani has made a number of changes over his career, and there are places where I've made changes," Romney said. On his clearest flip — on abortion — Romney said: "I'm not going to apologize for saying I was wrong and now I think I'm right."

He's got a point, even though pointing to sleazy behavior by others doesn't really excuse his own opportunistic shifts. For instance, this comes on a day when Giuliani added some conservative nuance to his support for gay civil unions -- as in, he supports them unless they look too much like marriage. Another way to look at it is that Giuliani supports them only in theory, since every single civil union bill passed so far would apparently fail his new test.

It's one thing to change your mind over time, or in the face of compelling evidence. It is neither realistic or desirable to expect people never to change their minds, ever, or to fetishize ideological consistency.

But in the case of all three men, the changes in position didn't take years and didn't coincide with any major events -- except their decisions to run for president. And I'm sure it's just a remarkable coincidence that all of their shifts involve taking positions more appealing to that conservative base.

Romney can never admit that's what he's doing, though. So we'll be treated to the spectacle of suspected moderate Republicans pretending to be conservative Republicans, making both moderates and conservatives suspicious about their true leanings -- not to mention whether they have any core beliefs at all.

Like most things in politics, this is a bipartisan failing that has less to do with the particular party and a lot to do with how far the views of the party base diverge from that of the general electorate. It hit the Democrats hard in the 2004 elections, for example, when the base was mostly antiwar but the general public wasn't. This time around it's going to primarily be a Republican problem, because the base still generally supports both Bush and the war while neither is even remotely popular with the voters at large.

It's still not pretty. It's easy for me to say because I'm not a candidate, but intellectual integrity should be more important than telling people whatever they want to hear.

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More on partial-birth abortion

Stubborn Facts has a pair of addendums to its excellent coverage of the Carhart ruling (for my own previous post, go here.)

Simon Dodd provides a seven-page analysis of the ruling. It echoes bits of SF's other coverage, particularly the important distinction between an "as applied" and "facial" challenge. The Carhart case was a facial challenge, and that is one of the hardest to prove. So to that extent, the ruling is narrow indeed. All the Supreme Court said, in essence, is that the law isn't unconstitutional in all cases but could well be unconstitutional in some. Indeed, by explicitly leaving the door open for "as applied" challenges, they seemed to indicate that such challenges might well succeed.

Further the plaintiffs never raised the question of whether Congress had the power to pass the law in the first place, which means the Court didn't address that.

On the other hand, he argues, it does undermine the long-held necessity of including a "mother's health" exception to abortion bans, by the simple expedient of Congress declaring that the procedure in question is "never medically necessary." As long as medical opinion is legitimately in dispute on that, no exception is needed: As far as the courts are concerned, Congress has the right to draw a clear, bright line where none exists in reality.

In a separate post, Dodd notes the absence of any reference to foreign law, and surmises it may have something to do with the inconvenient nature of that law when it comes to abortion.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

New Hampshire approves civil unions

The legislature in New Hampshire has voted along party lines to legalize civil unions, and Gov. John Lynch says he'll sign it.

"This legislation is a matter of conscience, fairness and of preventing discrimination," said governor's spokesman Colin Manning. "It is in keeping with New Hampshire's proud tradition of preventing discrimination."

The bill will make New Hampshire the fifth state to allow either civil unions or full-blown gay marriage.

And how's this for incoherence: "We don't let blind people drive or felons vote, all for good and obvious reasons," said Sen. Robert Letourneau, arguing that the state had every interest in refusing to recognize such unions. Because, I guess, it's as self-evidently dangerous as driving blind and as fitting a self-inflicted punishment as felons losing their right to vote.

With New York considering gay marriage (though it's a long shot to pass), it appears that New England is becoming the vanguard for marital fairness -- echoing their historic role as the vanguard in other divisive social issues such as abolishing slavery, racial integration and the like. History vindicated their leadership then; it will vindicate their leadership in this case, too.

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The politicization of government

Last month, reports said the administrator of the General Services Administration was under investigation for possibly violating the Hatch ACt, which makes it illegal to use federal resources for partisan purposes.

Turns out that might have been the tip of the iceberg.

White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.

The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.

Informational briefings? Fine. Pressure, encouragement or collusion to use their positions to try to influence the outcome of particular races? Illegal.
In a sign of the seriousness of the questions, the agencies' responses are being coordinated:

By the end of yesterday afternoon, all of those describing the briefings on the record had adopted a uniform phrase in response to a reporter's inquiries: They were, each official said, "informational briefings about the political landscape."

And then there's this adorable little slip-up:

At the Department of Homeland Security, spokesman Russ Knocke at first said "there is no indication that any meeting on election targets, congressional districts or candidate support or assistance took place at the department." He then called back to alter that remark, saying he had no indication that such a meeting was held at department "offices." A department official said employees were briefed on "morale" but did not elaborate.

Translation: "We did talk about political use of government agencies, we just did it out of the office."

For now these are just another set of questions regarding the Bush administration's politicization of government functions. But they are credible questions deserving answers.

And regardless of what those answers turn out to be, this provides an excellent example of why such politicization is a bad idea. While the president and Congress set policy, the American people have to trust that government is working for everyone, regardless of political party. At a minimum, revelations like this call that trust into question, which in turn erodes faith in government and undermines government's legitimacy. A certain amount of political influence is unavoidable and even desirable: after all, you don't want unelected mandarins ignoring the wishes of our elected representatives. But once appointed their job is to serve the people. It's a lesson that was lost on Alberto Gonzales, and it appears he was not alone.

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McCain calls for Gonzales to resign

The "throw him out" chorus keeps getting louder.

Presidential contender John McCain joined the growing number of Republicans calling for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to step down in the furor over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.

"I am very disappointed in his performance," McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday when asked about the attorney general in an interview with CNN's Larry King. "I think loyalty to the president should enter into his calculations."

When pressed about whether Gonzales should resign, McCain responded: "I think that out of loyalty to the president that that would probably be the best thing that he could do."

Translation: you're hurting your boss and the entire GOP, Al. Knock it off.

Things should be very interesting for Tony Snow when he returns to work next week.

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Senate passes war-funding bill

As expected, the Senate passed the timetable-laden war-funding measure. It now goes to Bush for an almost-certain veto. After which the real politicking starts.

A foretaste:

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Democrats were still considering what to do after Bush's veto. One option would be funding the war through September as Bush wants but setting benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet, he said.

Murtha chairs the House panel that oversees military funding.

"I think everything that passes will have some sort of condition (placed) on it," he said. Ultimately, Murtha added, the 2008 military budget considered by Congress in June "is where you'll see the real battle," he said.

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Rice will reject Congressional subpoena

Secretayr of State Condoleeza Rice says Congressional questions about Iraqi WMD have already been answered, so she doesn't intend to appear before Congress to discuss the matter.

Rice said she respected the oversight function of the legislative branch, but maintained she had already testified in person and under oath about claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa during her confirmation hearing for the job of secretary of state.

"I addressed these questions, almost the same questions, during my confirmation hearing," she said. "This is an issue that has been answered and answered and answered."

While this could still become an issue -- Congress doesn't really like having its subpoenas ignored -- Rice made a move to defuse the issue, offering to answer their questions in a letter.

That's hardly the same thing as being there in person, where answers can themselves be questioned in order to get more clarity or detail. But given her previous testimony, Rice's offer is reasonable. Let her send the letter, and then let Congress explain why the letter is insufficient and an appearance is necessary.

Meanwhile, use that subpoena power for a far more promising subject, the aluminum tubes issue.

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People are stupid

Two examples from the shallow end of the human gene pool today.

In Japan, a couple of thousand people bought sheep as pets, thinking they were poodles.

Flocks of sheep were imported to Japan and then sold by a company called Poodles as Pets, marketed as fashionable accessories, available at $1,600 each....

The scam was uncovered when Japanese moviestar Maiko Kawamaki went on a talk-show and wondered why her new pet would not bark or eat dog food....

One couple said they became suspicious when they took their "dog" to have its claws trimmed and were told it had hooves.

This is so over the top, especially the last example, that I'm waiting for this to be exposed as a hoax. But so far, it appears legit.

On the upside, Rex the Poodle will make a nice (if expensive) meal now that he's turned into Kabob the Sheep. (h/t: Sad-Sav)

Lest you suspect I think Americans are somehow better than the Japanese, let's go to Washington, D.C., and the case of the $65 million pair of pants.

When the neighborhood dry cleaner misplaced Roy Pearson's pants, he took action. He complained. He demanded compensation. And then he sued. Man, did he sue.

Two years, thousands of pages of legal documents and many hundreds of hours of investigative work later, Pearson is seeking to make Custom Cleaners pay -- would you believe more than the payroll of the entire Washington Nationals roster?

He says he deserves millions for the damages he suffered by not getting his pants back, for his litigation costs, for "mental suffering, inconvenience and discomfort," for the value of the time he has spent on the lawsuit, for leasing a car every weekend for 10 years and for a replacement suit, according to court papers.

Pearson is demanding $65,462,500. The original alteration work on the pants cost $10.50.

By the way, Pearson is a lawyer. Okay, you probably figured that. But get this: He's a judge, too -- an administrative law judge for the District of Columbia.

The case is going to trial in June.

I guess it can't simply be thrown out, because Pearson does appear to have a legitimate claim -- just not a $65 million one. But at what point do his antics become grounds for dismissal -- or for harassment charges?

Loony cases like this don't justify calls for tort reform -- especially because such calls usually make no effort to distinguish between legitimate suits and obviously frivolous ones, relying instead on blanket solutions like damage caps. But the court system definitely needs to come up with better ways to handle these outliers -- like ordering them to arbitration, summarily reducing the allowed claim, or otherwise insisting that the case remain within the bounds of reality -- or, in this case, small-claims court. (h/t: Moderate Voice)

Update: The poodle story is, indeed, a hoax. Too bad.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

House OKS troop withdrawal bill

The House has passed the conference committee version of the war-funding bill, complete with veto-attracting timetables. Two Republicans voted for the bill. 13 Democrats voted against -- six of them because it didn't go far enough. It goes to the Senate tomorrow, and could hit Bush's desk by Monday. If it reaches his desk: he might just scrawl "return to sender" across the front and give it back to the Congressional courier.

The details for the curious:

The bill passed yesterday sets strict requirements for resting, training and equipping troops but would grant the president the authority to waive those restrictions, as long as he publicly justifies the waivers. The bill also establishes benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet: Create a program to disarm militias, reduce sectarian violence, ease rules that purged the government of all former Baath Party members and approve a law on sharing oil revenue.

Unless the Bush administration determines by July 1 that those benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home immediately, with a goal of completing those withdrawals by the end of the year. If benchmarks are being met, troops would begin coming home no later than Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the troop pullout by April 1.

After combat forces are withdrawn, some troops could remain to protect U.S. facilities and diplomats, pursue terrorist organizations, and train and equip Iraqi security forces.

As well, Congress killed some of the $20 billion in pork they had padded the legislation with. They should have killed it all, especially given that Bush's promised veto makes it moot. Pork greases the wheels of politics, but $20 billion is just obscene.

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Wednesday Gonzales roundup

Just when you thought things might die down a little in the Gonzales case and other Congressional probes, they heat back up.

By 21-10, the House oversight committee voted to issue a subpoena to Rice to compel her story on the Bush administration's claim, now discredited, that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa.

This strikes me as a little bit of rehashing old news, as Republicans were quick to point out. And obviously there's a political factor here -- the opportunity to embarass the administration by reminding voters how badly they got things wrong in Iraq. But a lot of these issues should have been investigated at the time, and weren't. I'd much rather see a probe into the aluminum tubes evidence, since that seems to be a much clearer example of spinning intelligence to justify a war; but this is an okay place to start.

Moments earlier in the committee chamber next door, the House Judiciary Committee voted 32-6 to grant immunity to Monica Goodling, Gonzales' White House liaison, for her testimony on why the administration fired eight federal prosecutors. The panel also unanimously approved — but did not issue — a subpoena to compel her to appear.

This was expected, and should be interesting. Goodling was heavily involved in the decision to fire the prosecutors, and may be able to shed light on who actually drew up the list and why -- a question that remains oddly unanswered, as if the list just magically appeared one night on Kyle Sampson's desk as a gift from the Pink Slip Fairy.

Simultaneously across Capitol Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved — but did not issue — a subpoena on the prosecutors' matter to Sara Taylor, deputy to presidential adviser Karl Rove.

This will ratchet up the confrontation with the administration over executive privilege.

And then the topper:

And in case Gonzales thought the worst had passed with his punishing testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chairman and top Republican issued a new demand: Refresh the memory that Gonzales claimed had failed him 71 times during the seven-hour session.

"Provide the answers to the questions you could not recall last Thursday," Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, wrote to Gonzales on Wednesday.

The hot seat remains hot for Gonzales. They issued a similar request to Kyle Sampson, who outdid his boss by claiming "I don't know" 122 times. We'll see if anything comes of it. Either way it will continue to fuel the controversy -- either with the content of his answers, or the implications of his refusal to answer.

As if that weren't bad enough for Gonzales, there's this, from the Wall Street Journal. Turns out there was more to the recent FBI raid on Rep. Rick Renzi's house than there appeared:

As midterm elections approached last November, federal investigators in Arizona faced unexpected obstacles in getting needed Justice Department approvals to advance a corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, people close to the case said.

The delays, which postponed key approvals in the case until after the election, raise new questions about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or other officials may have weighed political issues in some investigations. The Arizona U.S. attorney then overseeing the case, Paul Charlton, was told he was being fired in December, one of eight federal prosecutors dismissed in the past year. The dismissals have triggered a wave of criticism and calls from Congress for Mr. Gonzales to resign.

It's important to note that this is speculation at the moment; there's no evidence of wrongdoing. But the timing is interesting:

Mr. Renzi, first elected to Congress in 2002, was fighting to hold on to his seat. In September, President Bush hosted a fund-raiser in Scottsdale on his behalf. About the same time Mr. Charlton was added to a list of prosecutors "we should now consider pushing out," wrote Mr. Gonzales's then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, in a Sept. 13, 2006, email to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. The email is among thousands that the Justice Department has released in response to congressional inquiries into the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.

In November, Mr. Renzi won re-election to a third term, beating his challenger by 51% to 44%. A month later, on Dec. 7, Mr. Charlton was told he was being dismissed.

Why did they decide to add Renzi to the "to be fired" list at that point? Coincidence? Could be. And as Gonzales backers like to point out, it wasn't like this particular investigation was going to be derailed. But that wouldn't have been the point. It could have been intended to send a signal to other prosecutors who might consider investigation high-profile Republicans.

Certainly needs some explaining.

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Assymetrical information warfare

I've been noticing signs of the approaching Apocalypse lately.

Yesterday, for instance, CNN devoted an hour of prime-time programming to.... Larry King and Dr. Phil dissecting the Alec Baldwin voicemail brouhaha.

Today, though, the earth really shifted. I find myself agreeing -- in substance, if not in tone -- with the conservative whackjobs Little Green Footballs.

They wrote about a Harvard study examining the media's coverage of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The upshot: Hezbollah tightly controlled media access to its side of the conflict, and thus controlled how it was portrayed. The Israelis, on the other hand, allowed far more unfettered access, and were victimized by it -- in part by the sheer number of images showing Israelis shooting at things, and the paucity of images showing Hezbollah doing the same thing. The result: Israel looked like the aggressor, even though Hezbollah started the fight by kidnapping two Israelis and killing eight others.

At this point LGF and I part company, because they see it as proof positive of willing media cooperation with terrorists, and also wax obsessive about the infamous doctored photos from a Reuters photographer in Beirut -- ignoring some facts in the process, such as 1) the doctoring was amateurishly obvious, 2) All it did was add more smoke (and buildings!!) to a scene that already had plenty and 3) the photographer was quickly fired and all of his photos re-examined.

In addition, while Hezbollah did indeed start things, Israel's (IMO, justified) response was also an attack: invading Lebanon. So it's hardly bias to depict Israeli troops relentlessly attacking Hezbollah when that, in fact, was what they were doing.

But the Harvard study does point up some serious problems, notably the failure of many media outlets to recognize and account for the effect of the Hezbollah restrictions. The blame can be assigned freely: The journalists on the ground were too willing to accept them, their editors didn't do enough to highlight those restrictions as they passed stories and photos up the chain, and wire editors at many news organizations here in the States didn't make a point of adjusting their coverage to correct for the imbalance in access.

Bias? Perhaps. I'm more willing to suspect bias among the reporters on the ground, many of whom were local stringers (with local biases) hired by news agencies. But bias doesn't really explain the failings higher up the food chain. Editors at all levels should have known better, because it's their job to know better.

So what caused it? I'm inclined to believe several things:

1. Laziness. Journalists, like everyone else, are more apt to cover things that are easy to cover. If Hezbollah is willing to drive you to the scene of a bombing, are you going to refuse? Nope. You should balance that out by noting the restrictions and limitations and trying to find other sources of information, but that's hard to do in normal times, much less during a war. At some point you shrug and accept that it's just another dog-and-pony show, like the briefings put on for journalists in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Further up, the stories and photos roll in as if by magic, each imbued with the authority of a wire service and a "just the facts" tone. Unless you have independent reason -- and the initiative -- to question whether what you're getting reflects the truth, you don't think much about it: you simply accept it and give your readers a representative sampling.

2. Excessive trust. As an editor, you're supposed to view things with a skeptical eye and ask a lot of questions. But you don't expect your reporters or photographers to keep important details from you. That trust may be misplaced when you're talking about local stringers (who can be expected to have their own political opinions) in the midst of a religious and ethnic war.

3. Lack of time. Employment in U.S. newsrooms has been steadily declining, as the Internet drains readership and an advertising slump cuts into traditionally fat profit margins. Newspapers are still cash cows, but they're not growing cash cows. Good journalism is expensive, and increasingly newspapers are unwilling to pay for it in any great numbers. So there's a lot less time for editors to look for not-so-obvious questions and angles, especially when it involves a story that is occurring overseas and they have no direct contact with.

Even on a good day, moreover, the fighting in Lebanon would have been just one of dozens of stories your typical wire editor handled on a given night. Most of those get no more than a few minutes' editorial attention: enough to get the gist of the story, assign a length and location and pick which wire piece to run. Then it's on to the next. Daily journalists work with the clock ticking remorselessly like a gun to their head: there would have to have been something about the Lebanon fighting that raised red flags in order for nonobvious problems to be noticed.

4. Lack of knowledge. A corollary to #3 is that knowledge and experience cost money, too. When newsrooms cut staff they often do it through buyouts, which disproportionately remove senior staff. This is great for the bottom line -- the most expensive warm bodies leave -- but it's not so good for journalism because you lose institutional memory, years of cultivated sources and life experience. It's intangibles such as those that often lead to the discovery of major mistakes because something just doesn't smell right, or the editor happened to visit the place in question 10 years ago.

If the above sound like excuses, they're not: they're laments. The media does not do the hard work often enough, or think about the big picture often enough, or communicate clearly to its readers the shortcomings in the data presented. And we all suffer for it, because democracy cannot survive without a free flow of quality information. So while I sympathize with the industry's troubles of late, there is no excuse for editorial timidity or laziness. The first question when covering something like the Lebanese war should be "how am I (and my organization) being manipulated by the various parties?" And then a plan developed for dealing with that -- even if the answer is simply to tell readers "here's how it is." Many outlets do that; too many do not.

It's a lesson the industry has learned before -- during Vietnam, and more recently with the often uncritical coverage of the Bush administration's WMD hype. Those lessons apparently didn't sink in in a lot of places, or else it's the kind of lesson that must be relearned by each individual reporter. But it's a lesson that will be even more important in the coming era of diminished resources. Perspective, hard work and a functioning BS meter can make up for a lot of missing dollars.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wow. Impressive.

This has been a big week for religious open-mindedness.

First, the Vatican decided that kids who die before they're baptized aren't necessarily doomed to an eternity in Limbo. Very big of them, I must say. I always find religions that punish the innocent to be particularly attractive, but I suppose it was time for them to finally move out of the 12th Century. And it only took them 800 years.

Okay, Limbo wasn't official church doctrine and has been informally repudiated for decades. And Limbo itself was an improvement on the thoughts of St. Augustine, who decided that such luckless kids ended up in Hell instead. But come on.

Then today, the Veterans Adminstration yielded to a lawsuit and decided Wiccan veterans could have their own symbol on their tombstones.

For nearly a decade, the department had refused to act on requests for the pentacle, without a clear reason. VA spokesman Matt Burns said that approximately 10 applications were pending from adherents of Wicca, a blend of witchcraft and nature worship that is one of the country's fastest-growing religions.

In yesterday's legal settlement, the VA agreed to grant all the pending requests within two weeks and to approve new ones on an expedited basis for 30 days. The department will also pay $225,000 to the plaintiffs for attorneys' fees.

How big of them, letting soldiers choose which religious symbol they would like to have on their own grave. I realize there have to be limits -- otherwise I'd want a pirate suit on mine, to honor the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- but it's hard to deny that Wicca fits whatever criteria you could name for a religion. So one is left with the notion that the opposition was based on simple prejudice.

In that regard, this is interesting.

The settlement stipulates, however, that the plaintiffs must not keep or disclose any documents handed over by the government during the discovery phase of the lawsuit. Lawyers familiar with the case said that some documents suggested the VA had political motives for rejecting the pentacle.

So the VA goes to discovery, then capitulates completely -- and wants the evidence kept hidden. Nah, nothing going on there.

And people wonder why majority religions are sometimes looked upon sourly by nonadherents.

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An excellent take on gun control

Today I stumbled across this excellent take on gun laws. It was written by John Casteen for Slate in response to Dick Cheney's lawyer massacree, but it's eerily relevant to the Virginia Tech case, revolving as it does around Virginia gun laws.

First, the ugly from the gun lobby side:

The roster of proposed gun bills in Virginia reads like a long series of bad jokes: One bill would do away with the concealed-weapons permit altogether; anyone at all could carry one, as long as they so inform the police if they're ever detained. This law is a shootout waiting to happen, since one can't exactly reveal a weapon without reaching for it. Another bill would prohibit health-care professionals—in the course of educating parents about home safety hazards like drain cleaner and gateless staircases—from suggesting a family may want to keep its guns away from children. And the states also legislate downward: Two proposed laws would repeal all gun ordinances passed by localities before 1995 and forbid them any further regulation of the discharge of weapons within their jurisdictions.

Then, the good:

The gun lobby does, in fact, present solid statistical evidence that armed people defend themselves and others against significant numbers of violent crimes. It also argues, correctly, that terrorist incidents in public buildings and rampage shootings in schools might be resolved more quickly by armed citizens within than by SWAT teams entering from without. There are good reasons for a decent, law-abiding person to own and carry a gun for purposes of recreation or self-defense. Her rights are just as precious as those of a non-gun-owner, and she shouldn't be treated like a criminal until and unless she behaves like one. No good law can erode her right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of skeet merely in the interest of keeping others with darker motives from getting their hands on a gun.

The core of the problem:

Evaluating the various bills proffered by the gun lobby should simply be a matter of totting up these rights and measuring them against issues of public safety. But such evaluation currently relies on a risk-benefit analysis that's skewed by state politicians' reliance on the gun vote. Perfect honesty, for instance, might force us to acknowledge that the threat to public safety these pro-gun laws pose probably far outweighs whatever value they may hold in preserving individual liberties, since criminals would be as likely as lawful gun owners to avail themselves of their right to bring a gun on their next trip downtown.

Now, the bad from the gun-control side:

Two examples of poorly conceived gun-control tactics are the federal assault-weapons ban and liability lawsuits against gun manufacturers and dealers. Even the nomenclature of the former—which expired in September 2004—is misleading, since Americans legally bought and owned assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and combat accessories for the duration of the alleged "ban." The bill did nothing to keep these weapons off the street, but the gun-control community claimed it as a major victory; the law didn't need to be effective in practice to be helpful in raising money from the left-leaning public. Again in the interest of candor, one would have to agree that's a cynical and dishonest approach.

The same is true of liability suits, which simply don't target criminals; they target companies, American ones, who provide skilled jobs to American workers. Suing Smith & Wesson as a result of a shooting is like suing GM because of a drunk-driving arrest (or Prada because someone wears white shoes after Labor Day … ). Responsibility should fall to individuals who make dangerous decisions, not to corporations that make inanimate objects.

Finally, his proposed solution:

Universal background checks. The Brady Law already mandates FBI background checks when anyone buys a gun from a federal firearms-licensed gun dealer. There's no question that Brady is constitutional, and that Congress had the right to pass it. Given sufficient legislative spine, then, it follows that they could mandate the same check on all private sales as well.

These off-the-books sales in the secondary market account for roughly 40 percent of annual gun transfers. They make possible the gun-show loophole and straw-man purchases like the one that gave the Columbine killers the semiautomatic pistol in their cache. In fact, the only lawmakers who could possibly oppose universal checks are those who'd argue that known terrorists, sex offenders, felons, maniacs, drunks, drug addicts, and domestic abusers should be able to skip the FBI check and buy their guns from private sellers. That's what our current law allows, which raises the question: Why is the gun-control community not focused on a straightforward law that would directly address one of the main sources of guns used in violent crimes?

I can imagine several practical obstacles to such a measure, mainly the difficulty of enforcing it and the bureaucratic hurdles it puts in the way of a gunower trying to get rid of a gun. Can Joe Citizen call the background check database and get a quick answer? And if so, what happens to privacy? What's to keep Mrs. Kravitz from calling up, pretending to have a gun she wants to sell, and checking on the criminal and mental status of all of her neighbors?

Given that, I'd be satisfied with a law that applied to gun shows and other semiformal venues, which accounts for most of the problem anyway. The idea is simple: Make it more difficult for guns to get into the hands of people who should not have them, without unduly hampering the rights of the rest of us to own and carry guns if we wish.

I'd also advocate laws that have nothing to do with gun ownership and everything to do with gun safety. For instance, you should not be able to buy a gun -- especially a handgun -- without undergoing training in its use or showing you have had such training. It might also include an "is a gun right for you?" section, where alternatives -- door locks, an alarm system, guard dogs, baseball bats, whatever -- are discussed, along with their advantages: less dangerous, cheaper, etc. The goal is to have only educated gunowners, who understand clearly why they own a gun and how to use it.

That education should include information on safely storing the weapon. If it's a gun intended for recreational use, then I think it's fine to mandate that it be stored unloaded, or in a locked case, or with the ammo separate, or with a trigger lock, or all of the above. If it's a gun intended for self-defense, however, when it's needed it's needed fast, and you don't want to be fumbling with a lock or loose ammunition. In such a case, the law should be more flexible: mandating that the gun be stored out of sight with the safety engaged and the chamber empty, perhaps, but otherwise simply urging the gunowner to store it as safely as possible while still meeting their needs.

I also think certain crime-solving measures -- like chemically marking the powder in bullets and explosives to help identify their origin -- are reasonable and unobjectionable if technical hurdles can be overcome at a reasonable cost.

The point is, again, to make punishing perpetrators easier without unduly inconveniencing the rest of us.

What about accidental shootings? Sadly, we cannot expect to eliminate them entirely, and attempting to do so could render the gun unusable when you need it most. I think the best we can do is require gunowners to attend safety classes, then hope that their sense of responsibility and love of their children will do the rest. That, and prosecuting them when they are negligent with their firearms.

Concealed carry? Fine, if the applicant otherwise qualifies to own a gun and passes additional classes and more stringent background checks.

These measures aren't going to solve the problem. But it's doubtful the problem is solvable in a conventional sense anyway. It is clear that people are constitutionally allowed to have guns. And given that, it's clear that there will always be a certain number of gun-related accidents and crimes. Gunowners need to accept reasonable restrictions in the name of accountability and public safety; gun-control advocates need to recognize the legitimate concerns and rights of gunowners. And all of us should hope that continued improvements in forensics and policing will make much of this debate moot by continuing to reduce crime overall.

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Nobody's going to win with Virginia Tech

It's time to apply some math to the Virginia Tech shootings.

Gun-rights advocates point to it and say, "If one of those students in Norris Hall had had a gun, this might have been prevented."

Gun-control advocates point to it and say, "If guns weren't so easy to get, Cho wouldn't have been able to kill so many people."

But both arguments miss the point. Because such massacres are extraordinary events, and not particularly relevant to the debate.

I have no doubt that armed citizenry have, on various occasions, stopped or prevented crime. But a school shooting is less than a once-in-a-lifetime event for any given town or location. The odds of any of us being in one are vanishingly remote; the odds of being in more than one are so astronomical as to be zero.

Wait, you say: I know of at least a dozen school shootings in recent memory. What do you mean, "they're rare"?

This is where the math comes in.

There are 94,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Add in the 28,384 private schools, and then arrange the 4,100 colleges, community colleges and universities as a garnish. That gives us a total of 126,000 schools.

There have been 36 school shootings in the United States in the past 11 years, for an average of about three per year.

If my math is correct, that works out to a 0.002 percent chance in any given year that your school will be attacked.

Over the course of an 80-year lifetime, the odds increase to 0.2 percent.

Over 1,000 years, the odds of any given school being attacked reach a whopping 2.4 percent.

Thus by any rational measure, a shooting at your neighborhood school isn't something to worry about except in the context of developing contingency plans as you would for any other highly-unlikely-but-very-bad-if-it-happens event -- like an asteroid strike.

So the question is not "can a gun (or gun control) stop a shooting rampage." We all can envision scenarios where both do just that.

For gun-rights folks, the question is, "Given that such rampages are vanishingly rare, how much carnage are we willing to put up with in the meantime in order to ensure that there's an armed citizen on the scene if and when such a rampage occurs?" The carnage is not small: Each year, firearms are used in about 10,000 homicides, 17,000 suicides and 800 or so accidental deaths. Another 75,000 are injured but not killed.

For gun-control advocates, conversely, the question is, "Given that such rampages are vanishingly rare, how many restrictions on gun ownership are we willing to impose on the population at large in order to keep a potential mass murderer from carrying out such an attack?"

And at base, the question for all sides is: "Does gun control (or armed citizenry) actually reduce violence (or crime) overall?" That's a far more complex question, of course. It's quite possible, for instance, that increased gun ownership reduces crime overall, but at the price of increased violence or accidental deaths. It's possible that gun control reduces deaths but at the price of increased crime. It's also possible that neither is actually a major factor in crime or violence.

I won't pretend to have the answer, but in my next post I discuss some reasonable gun laws that I think most people would support.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Another Abramoff casualty

Mark Zachares, a former aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, apparently is preparing to plead guilty to conspiracy charges.

In exchange for helping Abramoff get clients and business, Zachares was supposed to receive "credit" that would be applied when he landed a job at Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig. (The plan never got that far.)

According to prosecutors, Zachares helped Abramoff get an advance copy of a Justice Department threat report on Guam. He also provided Abramoff information about the Department of Homeland Security reorganization and helped Abramoff develop strategies to win DHS business for clients. Zachares also advised Abramoff's Sun Cruz venture on bureaucratic regulations.

He was a loyalist to the core. In emails Zachares reiterated "his willingness to use his position to retaliate against individuals or entities who had retained competing lobbying firms," according to the filing.

His loyalty came with perks. Zachares accepted trips, money, meals drinks, golf and tickets to sporting events. Many people have taken sports tickets from Abramoff, but Zachares' tally hits high on the list: between August 2002 and February 2004 he racked up more than $30,000 worth of tickets on more than 40 occasions. He also traveled with Abramoff to Scotland in August 2003. And in January and February 2002 Zachares received two $5,000 payments from Abramoff through a wire transfer from the Capitol Athletic Foundation, one of Abramoff's nonprofits.

Added to the Hall of Shame.

Update: As expected, Zachares pleaded guilty. He's expected to get about two years in prison.


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Spitzer to introduce gay-marriage bill

I love Eliot Spitzer. He's got courage.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer will introduce a bill in the coming weeks to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, his spokeswoman said Friday, a move that would propel New York to the forefront of one of the most contentious issues in politics.

That's gay marriage, not civil unions. And it's not the most popular thing he could have done. It'll play well in New York City, but not so much upstate.

Prospects for passage are uncertain.

Legislation to allow same-sex marriage has never made it to a floor vote in either the Assembly, which has a Democratic majority, or the Republican-controlled State Senate. Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, has declined to take a stand on the issue. Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, has supported legislation to outlaw hate crimes and workplace discrimination against gays, but he remains opposed to same-sex marriage.

Even among lawmakers who say they favor the legislation, there is some division over the best strategy to get it passed. Two legislators from Manhattan, State Senator Thomas K. Duane and Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, both Democrats, have tried for several years to shepherd a gay-marriage bill through the Legislature and are trying again this year. That bill has at least 14 sponsors in the Senate and 42 in the Assembly.

So it's a start, but it might be a symbolic one.

I also like the other initiative mentioned in the story: pushing a constitutional amendment requiring nonpartisan legislative redistricting. I've written about the general idea here and here, but it's nice to see a state taking actual steps to get it done.

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Backtrack: No wall in Baghdad

The wall that Americans were building to separate neighborhoods in Baghdad will apparently be unbuilt because the Iraqis don't like it.

The American ambassador said Monday the U.S. would "respect the wishes" of the Iraqi government after the prime minister ordered a halt to construction of a three-mile wall separating a Sunni enclave from surrounding Shiite areas in Baghdad.

Any plan to build "gated communities" to protect Baghdad neighborhoods from sectarian attacks was in doubt after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said during a visit to Sunni-led Arab countries that he did not want the 12-foot-high wall in Azamiyah to be seen as dividing the capital's sects.

This being Iraq, however, communication is not always the clearest:

Confusion persisted about whether the plan would continue in some form: The chief Iraqi military spokesman said Monday the prime minister was responding to exaggerated reports about the barrier.

"We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Azamiyah neighborhood. This is a technical issue," Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. "Setting up barriers is one thing and building barriers is another. These are moveable barriers that can be removed."

Al-Moussawi noted similar walls were in place elsewhere in the capital — including in other residential neighborhoods — and criticized the media for focusing on Azamiyah.

Including, apparently, his boss. Which may be where the real communication issues lies.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, indicated that there may have been a miscommunication.

"Discussions on a local level may not have been conveyed to the highest levels of the Iraqi government," Garver said.

It could also just be grandstanding, giving al-Maliki an opportunity to show his independence from the United States.

The Shiite leader is on a regional tour seeking support for his government among mostly Sunni Arab nations. His comments about the barrier may have been aimed at appeasing them and Sunnis at home, despite his assurances to the Americans that there would be no political influence over tactical decisions.

Al-Maliki has a tough line to walk between political and military objectives, no doubt. But any military plan must take those political realities into account. And if that creates an impossible situation, then something has to give on either the military or the political front. And we would need to evaluate or continued presence in Iraq in light of that revealed reality.

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Will nobody blink?

I realize that escalating rhetoric often has little to do with what will finally happen, but the bellicosity displayed in the Bush/Congress set-to over Iraq funding is pretty remarkable.

Defying a fresh veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass legislation within days requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq beginning Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout six months later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.

Reid said the legislation "immediately transitions the U.S. military away from policing a civil war." He said that troops that remain in Iraq after next April 1 could only train Iraqi security units, protect U.S forces and conduct "targeted counter-terror operations."

The Nevada Democrat outlined the elements of the legislation in a speech a few hours after Bush said he will reject any legislation along the lines of what Democrats intend to pass. "I will strongly reject an artificial timetable (for) withdrawal and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job," the president said.

So what's emerging from the conference committee is, remarkably, harder-line than either the House or Senate versions. The House version had hard deadlines but an 18-month timeframe; the Senate version had a shorter timeframe but no deadlines, only "goals." This hybrid version appears to combine the Senate's timetable with at least some of the House deadlines.

As such I think it's a bad idea. I didn't mind either individual version, because they were either very soft limits or the timeline was sufficiently long not to have an immediate effect. But the new version simply moves too fast.

If you truly believe that what's going on in Iraq is an intractable civil war, the bill makes sense: we have no business being there in that case. But if you believe, as I do, that Bush deserves one last chance to show he can win this thing, then an Oct. 1 deadline is simply too soon at this point.

All this may simply be attempts at blame-placing for the veto everyone knows will be coming by the end of this week. What happens after that will depend, in part, on who is more successful in the framing effort. Most likely result, I think, will be a "clean" spending bill that only runs through, say, Sept. 30. That means Bush will have to make another funding request in late summer -- right about when we should be starting to get a verdict on the surge.

But what if they're both serious? What if neither backs down? If no bill is passed, no more money is appropriated, and the war ends unless Bush can find ways to fund it out of discretionary monies -- which just isn't going to happen.

One would think that Bush would rather sign a bill with timetables than accept that. But there are other factors at work here. Neither side really wants an immediate, precipitous pullout, so each is hoping the other will blink first. Beyond that, Bush might see such a pullout as politically advantageous, because the effects would be more calamitous than a gradual pullout over the next year. He could then blame Congress for all the attendant trouble, instead of accepting that blame himself.

But much as I dislike Bush, I'm not cynical enough to believe he would do that to the Iraqis. I think he truly believes we need to stay in Iraq and can win in Iraq. So he's not going to abandon the war just to make political points at home.

So if it comes to pure stubborn, expect Congress to blink first. And then expect a short-term funding bill that will see this debate renewed -- with firmer Congressional resolve if the surge is going badly -- in the fall.

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Gays and abortion caused Virginia Tech shootings

At least, that's what Donald Wilmon and the American Family Association are saying.


Hopefully the video works; it's my first attempt to embed a YouTube link.
(h/t: No More Mister Nice Blog)

Update: Wilmon has company. Rush Limbaugh said the shooter had to be a liberal, while both the American Thinker and Newt Gingrich say liberalism is to blame.

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Life in the bubble

President Bush today reiterated his strong support for Alberto Gonzales.

The president said that Gonzales' testimony before skeptical Judiciary Committee senators last week "increased my confidence" in his ability to lead the Justice Department. Separately, a White House spokeswoman said, "He's staying."

Of course, he didn't actually listen to or watch that testimony. And the White House acknowledged that it wouldn't have mattered if he had.

Q. So is it fair to say that no matter what the testimony, no matter what the back-and-forth, that the President plans to stick with Attorney General Gonzales?

MS. PERINO: I think -- yes. I think the President has full confidence in the Attorney General and whenever that changes for any public servant, we'll let you know, and I see no indication of that.

That sound you hear is Bush sticking his fingers in his ears and going "Na-na-na-na-na. I can't hear you!" It doesn't bother me that he supports Gonzales. It bothers me that he is so obvious about his refusal to listen to things that may contradict his own viewpoint. Bush appears unable or unwilling to recognize two concepts:

1. There's a difference between "fierce loyalty" and "blind loyalty."

2. There's a difference between "loyal" and "competent."

Oh heck, let's add a third:

3. What's good for Bush is not always what's good for the government or the country.

His devotion to an incompetent lapdog AG is a prime example of all three. And it doesn't really achieve anything, because most of the rest of the GOP wants to be shut of the whole mess.

Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the House Republican Conference, called on Gonzales to step down -- echoing a position that a group of top House GOPers privately delivered to Bush earlier in the month. "He's done something I didn't think possible. He's lost the confidence of almost all the Republicans in Congress," said one top GOP strategist who is close to the White House.

This isn't a Dem-Rep thing; it's a Bush-vs.-everyone-else thing.

Update: Gonzales vows to stay on the job. Republicans everywhere shudder inwardly.

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